The Critics of Purple Moon

February 24th, 1998

I have been appalled by the criticism directed at Purple Moon since its launch late last year. (The company, brainchild of Brenda Laurel and funded by Paul Allen, creates software for girls age 10 - 14.) This criticism is unfair and small-minded.

The first and most ridiculous complaint is that the very notion of "software for girls" is sexist, or at the very least "unfeminist". This is unisexist zealotry, the dogmatic denial of any differences between girls and boys. If these people believe so strongly in their dogmas, let them create their unisexist software and present it to the world. For them to reject an entire class of software on grounds of ideological dogma is negativist nonsense. We live in a seriously flawed world; our task in life is to add our pitifully small increments of improvement to it. Computers constitute an immensely important new resource. Anything that brings this resource to bear on any portion of society is automatically a social benefit. We can argue whether Brenda’s time and Paul’s money might better have been spent on other tasks, but we cannot deny the net positive utility of such software. Besides, it’s their money and their time to spend, not the critics’.

The second complaint is with the content of the software rather than its aim. The critics complain that Purple Moon is doing for software what Barbie did for dolls: promulgating sexist values. This argument would be compelling if there were any substance to it. What is striking to me is the absence of substantiation in all such arguments. They make a few vague references to concerns about looks and clothing, but fail to demonstrate any sexist content in such material. Yes, girls do indeed worry about their looks and their attire. But what are we to do about that?

These criticisms bear a strong similarity with the logic of the opponents of sex education: if we address the issue with the kids, we only encourage that kind of behavior. And the counterargument in this case is identical with the one we use in sex education: this is a major issue for the kids, and they’re going to explore it with or without our help. They’ll be better off if we address these issues up front -- which is exactly what Purple Moon is doing.

A more insidious approach is the subtle admixture of the two arguments. Some critics develop the first argument (unisexist software) and then vaguely insinuate the second argument into the first one -- but they never offer specifics or substantiation for the second argument. In effect, they jumble two completely different arguments together: a detailed but dogmatic claim, and a serious but unsubstantiated accusation. Sorry guys, but lashing two one-legged arguments together doesn’t yield something that can stand on its own two feet.

A third claim is that the software lacks entertainment value. The critics are on thin ice as far as critical theory goes. If this were an old field with a well-developed critical aesthetic, such as theater, music, or cinema, I would respect the prerogative of a critic to criticize. But entertainment software is a very young field, and entertainment software for girls is completely new. On what established critical aesthetic do these critics base their cavils? For a work of criticism to have any merit, it must be more than the idle drivel of some opinionated idiot with a keyboard; it must be founded on an established aesthetic as interpreted by an educated critic. Such is not the case here. This isn’t criticism, this is a bunch of blowhards shooting off their mouths.

It is not my place nor any of the critics’ place to determine the entertainment value of this software; we’re not the target audience. The people who should decide are the girls themselves. Let them play with it, let them determine its entertainment value. And not just one or two girls, but thousands. If they like it, they’ll play it more, and Purple Moon will have proven the entertainment value of its work -- and made a bundle of money. If they don’t like it, Purple Moon bites the dust and Brenda Laurel takes it in the chin. So we have a perfectly good means of determining the entertainment value of this software. Why are these buttinsky’s stacking the deck before Purple Moon has its fair chance?

At this point, I would like to inject a logically minor but personally significant argument. I know Brenda Laurel personally, and I would like to think of her as a friend (although I would understand her rejection of my presumption) and I know Brenda to be "The Real Thing" when it comes to feminism. Thoreau once pointed out the vast difference between the many "patrons of virtue" and the rare "virtuous man". In the case of feminism, there are lots of "patrons of feminism" who loudly shout the purity of their beliefs, but Brenda doesn’t need to explain her beliefs: her life is the manifestation of feminism. This woman has pushed right into the innermost lair of male domination, the world of computers, and she has made a place for herself by force of will, genius, and awesome courage. Even more important, she did not compromise her femininity to accomplish this, and she’s certainly no iron bitch -- I caused her to cry once -- she is an emotionally normal woman. Where others talk feminism, Brenda lives it. The steady advance of feminist ideals owes everything to the sweat and courage of doers like Brenda and nothing to idle talkers like her critics.

I do have an axe to grind, I confess. My personal complaint against this criticism concerns the rigid narrow-mindedness of entertainment software people. It’s so cloyingly boyish! Shooting things, blowing things up, killing things, solving obscure intellectual puzzles -- this is the stuff of nerdy little boys fantasies. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such fantasies -- nerdy little boys have just as much right to a fantasy world as the rest of us. But why do they impose their fantasies on the rest of us? Entertainment software desperately needs to break out of the boy-fantasy straitjacket that computer games are locked into. And yet when somebody like Purple Moon comes along with exactly that stated goal, the critics gang up on the innovator.

Especially insidious here are the unstated vested interests of some of the critics. One published critic is an employee of a large computer games company that makes its money selling boy-fantasy games. He refers to games for girls as "a marketing scam... a cynical effort to flog inferior product". I cannot understand the viciousness of this wording. Aside from its hurtfulness and the fact that it’s coming from a direct competitor, there’s a frightening territoriality about this kind of comment, a beastly snarl that says, "This is OUR territory! Keep out!" Such critics will mouth pious and correct formulas ("why not good games for everybody?") but their blasts are always pointed at anything that strays outside their tight boy-fantasy definitions of computer games. These people don’t want good games for everybody; they want everybody to play THEIR games.

I say, Godspeed Brenda Laurel. You’ve taken on a tough challenge; it would have been so much easier -- and more profitable -- to grind out mindless clones of Doom, Myst, and Command & Conquer. You really can’t win -- if you succeed in your task, others will move in and snatch the profits and hog the spotlight. If you fail, the critics will have their fun cackling over your body. But some tasks are important and simply must be done and will never be done by the ideologues and the opportunists and the critics. The only people who take on these kinds of tasks are heroes.